Young professionals power Rochester's growth
By Jeff Kiger
The Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN
It can take a while for a new group to take off at first, but sometimes experiments like Fuel Rochester immediately launch into orbit like a rocket.
"It has grown really rapidly. We're just holding on for the ride," said Brian Olson, director for Fuel Rochester and communications director for the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce. "We're here for the new wave of business leaders."
Fuel Rochester, a young professionals group sponsored by the Rochester Chamber, made its first appearance with an informational gathering on April 30, 2009.
Now as it prepares for its first birthday bash, Fuel is running at 245 members, more than organizers had even hoped to sign up in the inaugural year.
"Its success has more than exceeded our expectations," said John Wade, chamber president.
What is attracting the crowds of young business professionals to its educational development seminars, happy hours and other Fuel-sponsored events?
Fuel Chair-Elect Allison Weckman said her story is a good example of how the new group is filling a niche.
She moved to Rochester more than two years ago, when her husband took a job at IBM.
"My first thoughts were 'How long do we have to still here until we can move back to somewhere more fun?'" she said.
As the membership director of the Rochester Golf and Country Club, she started attending chamber events and making business contacts.
But she was not really connecting with people she identified with or making friends.
Then the chamber introduced Fuel.
"It seemed like the perfect opportunity to not only grow professionally, but also grow socially," Weckman said. "Now I don't think about leaving Rochester. I have found a way to make Rochester our home and I'm happy here. I don't want to leave."
That aspect of the group is a really a benefit to the community and to area businesses as a tool to attract and retain employees, Olson and Weckman said.
In the past, there were many stories of up and coming professionals leaving Rochester for lack of friends or social outlets.
That is not a problem for Rochester "lifer" Mike Benike of the Alvin E. Benike, Inc. construction firm.
"It is important to me that people feel comfortable here and stick around, especially young, talented people," he said. "I figure I'm going to be for a long time and I'd like to have other motivated people stick around."
While the chamber does offer networking events, sometimes younger professionals were intimidated by trying to get to know people in the crowd that leans heavily toward longtime, established business leaders.
To help connect newcomers to the community and inspire others to stay, Benike works with the Fuel team that organizes the professional development sessions on topics such as social media, personal branding and wealth development.
"We have gotten great feedback from members and they tell us in the surveys we take that they want more events like this," he said.
Before all of the Happy Hours and educational workshops, Fuel started from comments by a young woman during a chamber brainstorming session.
Young Mayo Clinic executive Nicole Bennett Engler told the chamber board in 2007 that "It's hard for young professionals to feel there is a place for them."
She helped create Fuel and served as its first leader.
Wade said Fuel's success is greatly due to the very people it is designed to serve.
"It was conceived and executed by young professionals for young professionals. That's why it works," he said.
As the new group faces its second year of existence, its organizers are planning to reach out more to businesses and non-profits in the community.
An action team will meet with businesses to promote the employee retention aspect of Fuel to try to generate more involvement. Fuel is also partnering with groups, such as United Way, to link its members to community service opportunities.
"Our goal is to provide a little bit of everything, so a lot of people can benefit from their membership in Fuel," Weckman said.